The Fortress of Candlekeep is perhaps best known by a lot of people as being the starting point of Baldur’s Gate 1. Yet in that game (including in the 6th chapter of that game when you return) what you experience is only a small morsel of what has been written about it.
Review of the Sources
I’m not sure there is really enough written about Candlekeep for you to need to go beyond what has been written on the Forgotten Realms wiki. If you were looking for sources for it I suggest getting yourself a copy of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, or Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast. These sources I think are the best for understanding the keeps layout, it’s restrictions, and many of it’s other quirks. A free option for people is to read is the Sword Coast Survival Guide (where you can also learn about some of Candlekeep’s more colourful characters back in 1368 DR). Candlekeep was also recently featured in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus (but it really is only a brief stop in the adventure and the descriptions it provides of it are not very noteworthy). The image you are given in Descent into Avernus of Candlekeep does a really good job of giving some perspective as to what it really looks like.
People who are really into the video game are also encouraged (if they can find it) to check out Dragon Magazine (#255). They did a 3.5 page article all about Candlekeep (in the context of Baldur’s Gate 1) around the time of that games release. Most of it is dedicated to things that are specific to the video game but it is worth it to check it out if you are an uber fan of that game.
What Makes Candlekeep Unique Compared to Other Places?
I would pretty much put this down to five reasons that Candlekeep is unique.
- The entrance fee: the exact amount expected for this has changed over the years. Back in ye old days of 2nd edition you were expected to permanently give a book of no less than 10,000 gold in order to gain entrance (for just that one visit). They also would be needed to be sponsored by a mage of known power. Since 5th edition this kind of insane restriction has been reduced to a unique book (and it can even just be a copy of a book with some noteworthy history). Getting entrance doesn’t mean freedom to browse in all of its sections however. The sections containing magic knowledge require you to be accompanied by one of the fortresses great scribes.
- A protective mythal and magic defenses: sneaking into the city isn’t an option. Someone who does will find themselves having to face off against several archmages and probably also the the fortresses guards. The catacombs of the fortress are also protected by the ghost of a silver dragon. So sneaking through them is probably also not a great idea.
- How it makes its money: Candlekeep is unique because it makes it’s money through the copying of it’s books. With so many books and so much knowledge it’s the epicenter for the knowledge economy in Faerun. People travel from all over the continent to reach there with the hope of hunting down either magic or other types of knowledge. This also means that the monks here are extremely incentivised to protect their books and scrolls.
- Knowledge is the currency of the monks here: if the party does a favour for a monk here they are unlikely to make any coin from it. Instead this this might result in an exchange of knowledge. Perhaps a copy of a valuable scroll or book.
- There is no clear explanation for how the government is formed: in most cities you get some idea of how the government was formed. Maybe it’s a monarchy or the landed gentry control the city as part of a council. But with Candlekeep there is actually no explanation provided for how the Keeper got his position. Same goes for everyone else with any title there. It could simply be (like in medieval monasteries) the leader was decided by secret ballot, but beyond it being described in the DMG as a ‘meritocracy’ we really don’t know anything about this.
What are the Issues?
How the fortress is supplied: it’s not actually clear how they fortress is actually supplied given it’s entrance requirements. The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide does suggest that “friends of Candlekeep” can be given free entrance, but it’s not actually clear if this includes merchants. If not then how do the monks or even just the local inn get their supplies? Do they just drop everything off at the gate, get their coin, and then leave? Do they have to leave their cart of supplies there or do the monks and residents take possession of all their goods at the gate?
It’s a very inaccessible library: travelling all the way to Candlekeep for information (and then having to pay for the entrance to it) makes it kind of an inaccessible place for any campaign on the Sword Coast that isn’t in the immediate area. It’s not particularly close to Baldur’s Gate and teleportation into the fortress is blocked by the Mythal. This makes this huge repository of knowledge in the Realms really inaccessible.
Unclear governing structure: considering the vast amount of knowledge stored in Candlekeep, including the power of some of the magic knowledge it must possess, having some control over this seems pretty critical. While the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide does say that the Avowed are tested for deceit before they take their oaths it doesn’t say anything about after. How someone comes to rise to this position seems like it could lead to some interesting stories (for instance devils working to get their preferred Keeper into power so that they can in turn gain knowledge from the library).
How Can I Use It in My Campaign?
To make the library more accessible to adventurers I would consider having a teleportation circle outside the keep (or even a waiting area within the keep that has a teleportation circle that can be used). They still need to pay the book fee when they arrive but this I think opens up the library as an option for the party to travel to.
In my mind this should really be a huge repository of knowledge that your party can access with enough gold. That doesn’t mean that accessing that knowledge has to be easy. They can’t just pull up a catalog and look for it (as typically a keeper or one of his great scribes are the only ones permitted in the areas of the keep that store the magic knowledge). They also may not even find what they are looking for (there is no guarantee that that knowledge is out there).
If you are looking to further control access to knowledge consider using some variation of what is described in the 3rd Edition Campaign Guide. Just getting a scribe to search for you costs gold upfront (2,000 gold is what that book recommended). On top of that it there is a cost per text to copy non-magic material (100 gold in 3E) and even more for magical material (10,000 gold).
However, that doesn’t mean that a scribe can’t be convinced bring out or copy material for a party for a cheaper rate. It just means that will probably come with a favour. For instance, the scribes here may often find themselves in need of adventurers willing to brave the catacombs in search of a lost or buried artifact that the scribes happen to need.